James McMurtry’s song is an anthem of American decline and blue collar job loss. He sings the suffering of honest working people at the hands of Bain-like financial analysts who can wring profit from balance sheet transactions that do not take the effect on human lives into the accounting. From this sad ballad I springboard into several areas I don’t know much about. Call it an opinion piece.
Vietnam Vet with a cardboard sign
Sitting there by the left turn line
Flag on the wheelchair flapping in the breeze
One leg missing, both hands free
No one’s paying much mind to him
The V.A. budget’s stretched so thin
And there’s more comin’ home from the Mideast war
We can’t make it here anymore
My dad was in the Army. In the early 70s he was discharged on a 95% mental disability after his tour in Vietnam. He had a monthly benefit check that would go pretty quickly to local businesses: the liquor store, the craft shop and finally the pet shop of all places. At the craft shop he would buy model airplane kits, the kind where all the parts are cast from plastic molds and you assemble all the pieces, paint them, and apply decals. After filling every nook in the house with fighters, bombers and such his interest turned to pet birds. The point is I suppose he had a roof, he had a check, and he was pretty crazy. When he left (something abut a restraining order) he ended up in the Veterans Domiciliary in White Plains, Oregon and spent his final days in a cheap one bedroom in nearby Medford. I don’t know if programs like his have gone away.
But besides the tragic topic how we fail our veterans, there is the question of losing jobs offshore. Whether we lost those jobs because Romney-like assholes found ways to ship them overseas and line their pockets, or was it because we forgot what our jobs really are.
I’ve never worked in a factory, but I have experience with having my job sent away. I used to work at a tech company called @Home. We had the neatest, coolest, freshest idea of the new millennium: incredibly faster Internet connectivity over a cable TV line. Founded by a wicked smart scientist, Milo Medin, all we had to do is figure out how to take a coaxial cable, make a modem for it and get it into people’s homes.
See all those pallets piled up on the loading dock
They’re just gonna set there till they rot
‘Cause there’s nothing to ship, nothing to pack
Just busted concrete and rusted tracks
Empty storefronts around the square
There’s a needle in the gutter and glass everywhere
You don’t come down here ‘less you’re looking to score
We can’t make it here anymore
Did we sell a fast Internet connection, or innovative technology “solutions”? Because they way we think about our work shapes the extent to which competitors can imitate us and steal market share. What happened over in @Home is we never came out with a next thing. The cool, ultra-fast cable modem connection was a game changer and no one could copy it.
For a while.
Eventually, as our innovation on projects like a Set Top Box stalled, our cable TV partners learned our technology. Eventually AT&T forced some of their people into our operations and shortly later we were shut down. They didn’t need us because we no longer had something they needed.
I saw another example of how imitators can kill a business. In the job I had before, at Pacific Bell Internet we were a hybrid of phone company and tech start-up. In the late 90s we made a phone-company style Business Plan where we sought to figure out how much money we would make and spend for the year. We had two primary segments, the individual home internet accounts which was thousands of people on their 28.8 modems, and the business segment which was other resellers or corporate users on T1 and T3 circuits. We staked a lot on our ability to sell a large number of circuits at full price and increased volume based on current trends.
What happened was that the T1 circuits we bet on selling started to see increased competition as we went into our sales year. Other fledgling companies were now allowed to buy circuits in bulk (from us, who else) and resell them in the marketplace. As new companies do, they discounted prices to build a buzz and pulled he rug out from under our projections.
Here’s the thing. In both cases, as competition ate our lunch copying what we offered, we lacked a new, untouchable product that would propel us into new markets where the competition could not follow. As pictured in another blog, companies who deal in innovative products must continually abandon existing markets to the late-entry imitators and let those buzzards clean the carcass while they leap to the Next Big Thing.
You could argue this is what England has failed to do with soccer. They invented the game and were the masters in the 19th century. But as its popularity spread, other countries adopted it and even made improvements to such an extent that only once has England ever won the World Cup. The Barclay’s Premiership, the highest level of soccer played in England, has only about 40% of English players.
When I hear McMurtry’s song my first reaction is sympathy towards the thousands of unemployed blue-collar workers who have suffered through layoffs and plant closings. My second is anger at those who profit from facilitating the migration. But my last thought is, these companies are the ones who have forgotten what America’s sweet spot is. It’s not manufacture of heavy goods that others can imitate and make elsewhere. It’s science, technology, innovation, art and entertainment. For better or worse that’s our niche and I’m starting to think that’s the new job market.
As the author Alvin Toffler wrote, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” His book Future Shock came out in 1970 but it appears we are still absorbing its messages.
for more, go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unemployment_in_the_United_States